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2015 May



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone

On 12, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Almost AstronautsAlmost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

From GoodReads: What does it take to be an astronaut? Excellence at flying, courage, intelligence, resistance to stress, top physical shape — any checklist would include these. But when America created NASA in 1958, there was another unspoken rule: you had to be a man. Here is the tale of thirteen women who proved that they were not only as tough as the toughest man but also brave enough to challenge the government. They were blocked by prejudice, jealousy, and the scrawled note of one of the most powerful men in Washington. But even though the Mercury 13 women did not make it into space, they did not lose, for their example empowered young women to take their place in the sky, piloting jets and commanding space capsules. ALMOST ASTRONAUTS is the story of thirteen true pioneers of the space age.

A few years ago PBS ran a really good series called When We Left Earth about the US space program. It was very well done and incredibly interesting, but if you were left wondering where all the women were, here is your answer. Like When We Left Earth, Almost Astronauts was so interesting. These impressive female pilots underwent most of the testing that the male astronauts who actually got to go into space did. And they did better than the men. In fact the majority of people who worked with them thought they would be excellent candidates for the space program. But these women had an uphill battle. They were up against a wall of sexism that wanted to keep them in the home and keep them from making waves. There were undertones of racism, too. People worried that letting women into the space program would set a precedent that would force them to allow in minorities and so they didn’t want to open that door.

This is certainly nonfiction, but Stone does some leading and hinting that makes it sound like she has inserted some opinion. I’m not saying she’s wrong, but sometimes she sounds like she’s placing a lot of blame on NASA when sexism and misogyny were endemic to US culture. Women had uphill battles in all sorts of fields and really just getting into the workforce. Stone mentions on numerous occasions that women in the 1960s were not allowed to rent a car or get a loan without a man’s signature.

There are some really terrible revelations in the book and you won’t look at the space program the same way again. It took NASA until 1978 to admit women into the program and it wasn’t until 1983, when Sally Ride went up in Challenger, that women in the US were sent into space. (Russia sent their first woman up in 1963, TWENTY years earlier.) Several of the original astronauts (including some big names) were against allowing women into the space program. John Glenn and Scott Carpenter both testified against allowing women into the space program in a Congressional hearing on the matter. Glenn even made several jokes in poor taste and questioned their abilities. I would like to mention that Jerrie Cobb, the woman who underwent all the same testing as Glenn and surpassed him, had logged more 2,000 more flight hours than Glenn as well.

Not only are these women excellent role models for our girls (and boys!) they are a good reminder of how hard women fought for us so we could enjoy the relative equality we do today. There has been a lot of talk about the pay gap between men and women lately, but I think it’s important not to forget how far we have come. Certainly this book can have a wide audience. Space exploration and history is always a popular topic. But I think anyone interested in those topics should read this. It helps give a much more complete picture of that history.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell

On 07, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

JosephineJosephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson

From GoodReads: In exuberant verse and stirring pictures, Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson create an extraordinary portrait for young people of the passionate performer and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker, the woman who worked her way from the slums of St. Louis to the grandest stages in the world. Meticulously researched by both author and artist, Josephine’s powerful story of struggle and triumph is an inspiration and a spectacle, just like the legend herself.

Josephine is the perfect example of what picture book biographies should be. For starters it really includes good information about her. After finishing it I felt like I had a good sense of the events in her life as well as who she was. Sure, this isn’t the definitive biography, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a student use it in a report. Plus it was meaty enough without feeling like you’re reading something for a report.

The book needs to be taken as a whole package. Every element works so well together. The story of her life is broken out into chapters which are introduced with a two page spread of a curtain rising on a new set. Perfect for the stage-loving Josephine. Every so often there is a two page spread that is just a colored background with text on it. This is particularly effective for getting information across without feeling like a dry page of text. The writing is also very lyrical making it incredibly readable.

Robinson’s illustrations are beautifully stylized and Josephine is always recognizable by her large, elongated eyes. The bold solid colored backgrounds make the modern, graphical figures pop off the page. The illustrations feel old and new at the same time, like something from the sixties but with fresh, bright colors.

And Josephine was such an amazing person. She is a true rags to riches story, but she also worked tirelessly to fight against segregation and the prevailing attitude in the US at the time that blacks were inferior to whites. She practiced what she preached too, insisting that audiences be mixed and adopting 12 children all of different ethnicities. She’s just an interesting person to read about. Flashy and energetic, quirky and confident Josephine’s life was anything but average.

I haven’t seen such a good use of typeface in a picture book in a long time (ever?). The author pulls out words and makes them all caps emphasizing them. But they aren’t random words. They’re words with significance for the scene, the story, and for discovering who Josephine was. There are also quotes from Josephine throughout the text and these are printed in an entirely different (and fancier) font that is much larger. I think that emphasizes Josephine’s larger-than-life presence as well as making it clear they are her words. Other books have attempted mixed fonts and it just ends up looking like a sloppy ransom note. Not here. This looks polished, intentional, and adds to the story.

My one regret about the book is that there wasn’t any information about what happened to her children and her siblings. I’m a nosy person and I like to know about anyone mentioned in the text. But the book isn’t about her family. It’s about her and it does a fantastic job of sharing that story and sharing who she was. As I said, I would recommend this to kids writing biography reports. It’s fairly long so it would be better for upper elementary, but there isn’t any reason a middle schooler couldn’t pick this up and read it either for pleasure or for research. It’s a slightly smaller format than a normal picture book making it a little more appealing to older kids who might not want the stigma of reading a book with pictures. Highly recommended!

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

On 06, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

El DeafoEl Deafo written and drawn by Cece Bell

From GoodReads: Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it’s just another way of feeling different… and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

I really enjoyed El Deafo. It was a great friendship and growing up story. But the real endorsement comes from my three and a half year old who picked it up, drawn in by the rabbits, and flipped through it page by page for a good 15 minutes. And she’s asked to look at it again a few times. She was especially amused by the fact that Cece wears her bathing suit all the time as a little girl. Now obviously my daughter wasn’t reading the book, but she was captivated by the illustrations and not surprisingly. They are very good. Bell captures different people really well (telling people apart is something I have trouble with some other graphic novels). The colors are bright and inviting and the choice to use rabbits instead of people is awesome. It makes it a realistic fiction novel with animals!

The story itself is pitch perfect for the upper elementary/lower middle school years. Cece starts out young and hits fifth grade by the end, but her struggles with finding a true friend and trying to fit in are so relevant to that age. Sure, she’s dealing with having this giant, and to her, embarrassing hearing aid strapped to her chest and that’s what Bell wanted to write about. But we’ve all been through those other struggles. Which isn’t to say kids will like it despite the differences but will love it because all kids have something they are insecure about and the hearing aid is just what makes Cece so uncomfortable.

The friendship struggles are particularly well done (can I say that since they really happened?). Cece befriends several girls over the course of the story, but they each have their flaws. One is too bossy. One talks slowly in a misguided attempt to help Cece understand her. When she finally finds the perfect friend they have a falling out of sorts. This makes the book particularly well suited to kids who like friendship stories and realistic fiction.

Finally, I loved how long the book was. It’s still manageable for reluctant readers (who are the perfect customers for graphic novels), but it felt like a real story and a real book, not something that could have been longer or was half finished. Besides unimpressive art my biggest complaint about graphic novels is they can often feel like they should have been longer. Not so here. While any reader could pick this up and enjoy it, reluctant readers might feel a real sense of accomplishment finishing a book that feels like a book and not something overly simple and short.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

New Job!

On 05, May 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

Just a quick post today to share that I’ll be working one day a week in the lower school library next year. I got a contract a couple weeks ago and signed it.

I have a long history with this school (alumni, former employee, volunteer, my husband works there and prospective parent) so I’m very familiar with the campus and all the staff. I’m really excited to be so part time. It’s a little extra income and the job itself should be a lot of fun, but I’m still able to be home with my daughter. I really like the other librarian I’ll be working with, so that sweetens the deal. So far I know I’ll be working with the fifth grade, but the other grade I take is still up in the air. There’s a lot to coordinate with PE, foreign language, and music which the kids have everyday. Hopefully this will lead to some good fodder for blog posts starting in the fall, too.

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